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You may not know John Collins’ name now, but you will soon

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Trae Young gets most of the attention when talking about the rebuilding Hawks, but don’t forget their 21-year-old double-double machine.

The Atlanta Hawks are not a good basketball team. This is by design. They are one of the youngest teams in the league, and their young players have a position of prominence. This is the difference between tanking and rebuilding, and the Hawks are very much in the early stages of the latter.

The results have not been pretty, although, again, that’s expected. The Hawks began the week with the worst record in the Eastern Conference, which is good because a high lottery pick would be the ideal outcome this spring. That’s a tough way to get through 82 games, so first-year coach Lloyd Pierce is focusing on the small steps.

“It’s about discovery, it’s about growth, and then it’s about development,” Pierce says before a game against the Celtics. “All of those words that we have to keep throwing out there with those guys.”

As a high lottery pick, rookie point guard Trae Young has received most of the attention and scrutiny, but the Hawks’ roster is full of 20-somethings trying to find their way in the league. From rookie Kevin Huerter to third-year wing DeAndre’ Bembry, there’s opportunity for players to make a name for themselves.

The best of that bunch, though, is second-year forward John Collins. Who is John Collins? He’s a double-double machine quietly tearing up the league.

After missing the first 15 games with an ankle injury, Collins is averaging better than 18 points and nine rebounds this season.

That makes him one of only a dozen players putting up those kind of numbers. That’s heady company.

But Collins has been even better in his last seven games, averaging 23 points and 12 boards on 60 percent shooting from the floor. Even at the warpspeed pace the Hawks play, those numbers get your attention.

“You just see him becoming more comfortable as a lead scorer and he’s doing it in a variety of ways,” Pierce says. “Everyone knows he can score in the pick-and-roll. To see him on the glass, to see him put it on the floor, and then to see him stretch the floor, you’re just seeing his growth all at once right now.”

It’s not like Collins came out of nowhere.

He was an All-ACC performer at Wake Forest as a sophomore and he averaged 10.4 points and 7.3 rebounds last season while earning rotation minutes as a rookie. That was good enough to be a second-team All-Rookie selection.

Still, guys who get drafted in the latter part of the first round (Collins went 19th) don’t tend to be this good, this fast. For comparison sake, he was drafted after Justin Patton, D.J. Wilson, and T.J. Leaf, and one spot ahead of Harry Giles. Patton and Giles have battled injuries, Wilson is struggling to stay in the league, and Leaf is barely a rotation player. Getting Collins at 19 was quite a coup by general manager Travis Schlenk in his first draft with the club.

What’s remarkable is that Collins is the only 20-point scorer in the league without a signature move.

Or any moves, really. Collins gets most of his points off dunks, lobs, offensive boards, and other manner of fast-twitch explosions. Seventy-five percent of his field goals come via assists, per Cleaning the Glass.

His is not a game of shot creation. It’s a game of activity.

“If he’s able to jump in the air with no one underneath him, and I throw it anywhere in the vicinity, I know he’s going to be able to go get it,” Young says. “He scores a lot off plays we don’t even run for him. He can create for himself off energy.”

There have been many players who experienced initial NBA success on little more than energy and athleticism.

What makes Collins unique are his exceptional hands and timing. He’s a huge soccer fan and he credits his experiences growing up as a goalie for sharpening his awareness.

“It helps my reaction times,” he says. “I’ve always had good hands, but my reaction time is something goaltending helped me with, being able to track the ball at such a fast speed.”

His teammates know that they can zip passes to him that other big men might fumble, or bounce passes off the break that don’t break his stride. Anything near the rim is automatic.

“You can throw it anywhere,” Pierce says. “You can throw it low, you can throw it high, you can throw him lobs, and he can do whatever he wants with them.”

That’s good because the Hawks don’t run any plays for Collins.

As Pierce put it: “I don’t call shit for John.”

“He doesn’t remember any plays, that’s our running joke, and it’s not a knock on him,” Pierce says. “He’s an energy, bouncy guy. He’s already running something and he’s like, ‘Oh right, I forgot we called a play. What is it again?’ And then he just goes BAM.”

Collins goes BAM quite a bit. Get him in a pick and roll heading downhill with a smaller player on him and he’ll punish them. Get him on the run in the fast break and he’ll finish with a dunk.

But set plays, no.

“For all our guys, to call a play means to slow down,” Pierce said. “That’s not his strength. Movement is his strength, activity is his strength. Side to side is where John’s hard to guard.”

Collins, who turned 21 in September, is getting a little tired of hearing that the Hawks don’t call any plays for him.

At the same time, Collins is a mature 21 and he understands his role.

“When (Pierce) says that he means offensively there’s no set play where you go, ‘Hey John, here’s the ball and you go ISO,’” Collins said. “There’s none of that in the offense. I’m an option. I play my role at an elite level within the offense and the guys do a good job of finding me.”

In its way, this is a massive compliment. That Collins can be this effective without the benefit of specific offensive attention, makes him unique.

“He’s not a static player,” Pierce continued. “You don’t just give him the ball and say go make a play. That’s not a benefit for us. You just have to let him play and that’s why we don’t call plays for him.”

Pierce, by the way, is still trying to figure out how Collins could have spent two years in college and just turn 21 before his second season in the pros.

“I’m trying to do the math of two years in college, and then in the NBA,” Pierce said, laughing. “It still doesn’t make sense.”

On this team, Collins is practically a seasoned vet. The Hawks have started three rookies — Young, Huerter, and Omari Spellman — while seven of the top 10 rotation players are under the age of 25. Collins hasn’t been through much, but he’s been through some things.

“I put in a lot of work over the summer, “ he said. “It’s that work over the summer and from learning the game in my second year, being able to slow down. I’m comfortable being around the NBA lifestyle, the travel, the hotels, the pregame, everything. I’ve seen it, so it’s easier to get me into my zone.”

There are is one more obvious step for Collins to make.

He has to learn how to shoot within the flow of the game.

Collins can shoot. He made a respectable 34 percent of his 3-point shots as a rookie in limited attempts, which was a good sign. This year, he’s shooting more from behind the arc, but making only 23 percent.

Everyone is convinced that it’s going to come around in time.

“The next layer for him is to consistently be able to stretch where you can call a pick and pop play for him,” Pierce says. “He can shoot it, but he’s learning how to shoot it. He’s learning when to say, ‘Oh if you’re going to play me way down here, I’m not rolling down the floor.’”

Pierce takes a step back in the hallway outside the locker room to demonstrate his point.

“Now you’re going to come up here,” he continues, taking a step forward. “I can attack you and I can also shoot. That’s the next wave where his game will completely take off.”

For the Hawks, these are the steps that matter this season. Collins is already making a name for himself. Just imagine how good he’ll be when it all falls into place.